At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2021

I can’t be sure, because I never made a record of it, but as near as I can figure, 50 years ago today is when I self-consciously made a decision to become a Christian. My self-conscious identity changed at that moment. Every day in my life since then has been shaped by that choice even as my understanding of what actually happened in those moments has evolved a great deal.

My question for today is whether it was a good choice. I am basically pleased with the trajectory my life has taken. Thinking of myself as a Christian has from June 30, 1971, to today given my life meaning and direction (for better or worse, but mostly better it still seems). I’m grateful for the people who have entered my life over the years due to my engagement in Christian communities. I have had meaningful educational and work experiences that I owe to this engagement.

At the same time, my sense of confidence in the intellectual validity of Christian teachings is lower than it has ever been. And this matters for me, because my entry and on-going participation in the Christian world has always been a choice based to a large extent on my convictions. I didn’t grow up in the church. Some branches of my extended family were active church people (including numerous pastors), but those never lived nearby and were never influential in my life. I’ve never had the “it’s in my bones” kind of pull to be a Christian that many of my friends do—something that keeps quite a few them within the circle of faith.

What are the main concerns?

The roots of my dis-ease go back to the very motivations that drove me to take the step of faith to begin with. My burning passion was to understand the truth. It was that simple. Through reflections on my experiences in life and through conversations with a close friend, I came to sense that the Christian message was true. That to know the truth meant to take the step of (in the language I was taught at the time) “accepting Jesus as my personal savior.” But my “need” was never to feel forgiven or to be “saved” from anything. I never feared death or condemnation. I just wanted to understand the world I lived in and to move toward the truth (whatever that might be).

It seems highly ironic now that I would have thought jumping into fundamentalist Christianity (the Bible Baptist Church) would have been a move toward the truth. I think the theological schema I was initially taught was profoundly untrue. However, I think there was always a core of something present that did point me in the right direction. The message of Jesus about love, restorative justice, and resistance to the domination system began to work on my heart from early on, even if it took several years for me to recognize it for what it was.

Continue reading “At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]”

The prophet’s vindication [Jesus story #14]

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2021

I was a teenager when I became a Christian. As western Oregon was pretty unchurched, I didn’t grow up with any peer pressure to be religious. So, in many ways I was a blank slate as far as faith goes when I first walked into Elkton Bible Baptist Church with my friend David. It’s interesting to me as I look back because the driving force for me was a desire to understand, to get help with my questions, to move towards discerning truth. And I happened into a church which had this basic stance: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” We’ll answer your questions, but just one time. Though treated with kindness, I was certainly not encouraged to keep asking questions.

I was taught a bunch of things as true without really being given too many reasons why. So, as a result, when I went to college and by my junior year started getting pretty serious about the whys and wherefores of my faith, a whole bunch of beliefs quickly dropped by the wayside: No more rapture and Great Tribulation doctrine, no more creationism, no more inerrant Bible, no more substitutionary atonement. But for some reason, one of the really big beliefs, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, remained pretty much unscathed for quite some time. Like so many other beliefs, it was simply presented to me as factual, not open for negotiation, absolutely necessary. Don’t ask why; don’t ask what it’s based on, that is; don’t question it.

Questioning Jesus’s bodily resurrection?

Unlike the rapture, creation/evolution, and the perfection of the Bible, I didn’t mind not questioning the resurrection. But it seems to me that theological beliefs are kind of like a slot machine—different ones come up at different times. And, for various reasons, about 20 years ago or so, the resurrection came up for me. So, I started really thinking about it, and realized that, indeed, there are lots of questions.

Continue reading “The prophet’s vindication [Jesus story #14]”

Life in Death [Jesus story #13]

Ted Grimsrud—May 17, 2021

One of the great things about being around young kids is getting all these questions. I really enjoyed that when my grandkids were preschoolers. I guess the questions weren’t all always welcome—such as when you say it’s time to go home and one would say, “Why?!” But most of the questions are wonderful (even if sometimes hard to answer): What’s the difference between a fire engine and a pumper truck? Why are the lights off in the bank at night? How do they make fudgsicles? Why do we root for the Oregon Ducks? But the questions can also be a bit complicated. Why doesn’t Granny remember my name? What’s the earth? Why did G-Ma’s dog Trika die? Why don’t some children have beds to sleep in?

Questions are terrific. We need to encourage them. I am grateful to my parents for many things—one of the biggest ones is that they never made me think I shouldn’t be asking questions. Some great words for parents and grandparents to keep in mind come from British folksinger Ewan MacColl’s “Father’s Song,” that concludes with these lines: “Go on asking while you grow, child/ Go on asking till you know, child/ And then send the answers ringing through the world.”

One of the big questions

The grandchildren liked theological questions, too—I guess they came by those honestly. What’s the Bible? Where is God? What does salvation mean? We told them, well, these are good questions—and not just for four-year-olds. Then there’s our question for today: Why did Jesus die? Try explaining that to a four-year-old! Or to anyone else. However, like so many questions that are difficult to answer, we can learn by trying to come up with an answer—even if we know our answer will be weak or only partial.

Continue reading “Life in Death [Jesus story #13]”

When the “good news” is bad news [Jesus story #12]

Ted Grimsrud—May 13, 2021

A number of years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Straddling self-help and theological reflection, this book brought to popular consciousness the perennial question: What kind of world is this where young children die of terrible diseases (like Kushner’s own son) or where great tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanoes bring massive death and destruction? This question, of course, remains. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It points to a large uncertainty about the predictability of life. We may think of variations, too. Such as, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or, as a friend of mine suggested were he to write a book about his life, “Why do good people do bad things?”

Good news is not always good

I have another variation in mind in this post. Kushner’s concern was with kind of random bad things that strike, the kind of things that show that God, if God is good, cannot be all-powerful. And his reflections are helpful, I think. But this is my concern in this post, based on the story of Jesus: What about when bad things happen to good people not in a random way but precisely because the good people do good things?

To some degree this seems to be Jesus’s focus. Good news is here. Turn to God, trust in this good news, be transformed by this good news. Let this good news shape how you live. Then, expect trouble. Jesus’s message clearly contradicts a lot of feelgood religion. His is not a prosperity gospel. Believe, become a good person—and then bad things will happen. And they will happen precisely because you live as a good person. Is that not a bit unsettling—perhaps even more so than Harold Kushner’s question?

Continue reading “When the “good news” is bad news [Jesus story #12]”

Listening to Moses [Jesus story #11]

Ted Grimsrud—May 10, 2021

As President Dwight Eisenhower was leaving office at the end of his second term, he delivered a famous speech. He warned of the power of what he called “the military-industrial complex,” the domination of our society by people and institutions and ideologies that make our nation’s priorities center on war and the preparation for war. In so many ways, things have only gotten worse since.

Thinking about this warning all these years later leaves one with a sense of urgency. Indeed, we do face political, environmental, moral, and spiritual crises that feel almost overwhelming. We hurtle toward disasters linked with global warming, and our corporate-funded media and federal government resist changes that might limit profits. Our political discourse normalizes hate speech and then insists that mass shootings are the acts only of isolated, mentally ill individuals. And, perhaps worst of all, the message of Jesus, a message of genuine peace, is linked with religiously-sanctioned violence to the extent that being self-identified as a Christian in this country means one is more likely than a non-Christian to support war and the death penalty.

I thought about Eisenhower’s speech (and the urgency borne from all these years of a warning unheeded) as I spent some time with another message of urgency—the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. I was struck with some parallels. Jesus tells of two men who die, one is rich, the other poor. The rich man suffers torment due to his cold-hearted life. He urges “father Abraham” to allow the poor man, Lazarus, to return to life to warn the rich man’s brothers of their likely fate. Talk about urgency!

A response to urgency: Listen to Moses

I was fascinated with the story’s implied message about how best to respond to this urgency. The point is simple: Listen to Moses, listen to Torah, listen to the prophets. You already have all the guidance you need. If people won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, an amazing and attention-grabbing miraculous warning to turn or burn won’t change their minds either.

Continue reading “Listening to Moses [Jesus story #11]”

Metaphysical Therapy [Jesus story #10]

Ted Grimsrud—May 6, 2021

I have titled this post “Metaphysical Therapy.” When I look up the word “metaphysics,” I read this: “the term is not easily defined.” So, I thought maybe I should find a new title. But I read on: “metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions—‘what is there?’ and ‘what is it like?’” I thought, well, that is what I want to write about.

We who believe compassion, nonviolence, and restorative justice should be central for social life face challenges. Our American culture doesn’t seem hospitable to these beliefs. Our culture tends more toward cruelty, violence, and retributive justice. A lot of the problems may stem from our metaphysics. That is, the problems may stem from what we believe reality to be like. Is the world ultimately a friendly place or unfriendly? Is life to be lived with a mentality of abundance or of scarcity? Is violence part of our nature or not? Is this “little round planet,” as Bruce Cockburn asks, “blessed” or “cursed”?

If the nature of the universe points toward scarcity, we can’t but be required to be stingy, to cling to what we have, and to view human relationships in conflictual terms. Our basic stance, with good reason, will need to be fearful. But, if the nature of the universe points toward abundance, then it makes more sense, and is more natural, to be generous, trusting, and vulnerable in our relationships. “Metaphysical therapy,” then, seeks to heal our understanding of reality—to move us from fearfulness to trust. I will suggest that such metaphysical therapy is a central part of Jesus’s ministry. His message always challenges our view of the nature of reality.

Continue reading “Metaphysical Therapy [Jesus story #10]”

Salvation—From what? [Jesus story #9]

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2021

When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would have a baby who would bring salvation to the world, he also told her, “his name will be Jesus.” Now, this was not just a random name—the kind of name that has no obvious meaning until it is attached to the person who makes it famous, like “Barack” or “Waylon” or “Zsa Zsa.” No, the name “Jesus” already had lots of meaning. The Hebrew version was Joshua. The word itself means “God saves,” and the first Joshua was indeed an agent of God’s salvation—leading God’s liberating work for the Hebrew people.

When we ask, why do we pay attention to Jesus, certainly one of the most obvious answers is that we pay attention because we recognize him as our savior. But that answer leads to other questions: What kind of savior is he? What kind of salvation are we looking for? What do we learn about salvation when we ask what we are to be saved from? What does the Bible seem to say we need to be saved from? Let’s look at a few texts:

The Lord inclined to me and heard me cry. God drew me up from the desolate pit and set my feet upon a rock. Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me forever. For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me. I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. Psalm 40

Thus says the Lord, who created the heavens, who formed the earth and made it: I am the Lord, and there is no other. Draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge—those who carry about their wooden idols and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength. Isaiah 45:18-25

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-39

A lawyer challenged Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have given the right answer.” But the lawyer asked Jesus, “So, who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a Levite. But a Samaritan stopped; when he saw him, he he was moved with pity. He bandaged the wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he gave money to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

Continue reading “Salvation—From what? [Jesus story #9]”

The Troublemaker [Jesus story #8]

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2021

I suspect there is a very fine line between growing up to be a sociopath and growing up to be a prophet. I know of a story from about sixty years ago. There’s this little first grader, let’s call him Teddy. His teacher thinks he has done something severely wrong and confronts him. He denies everything, vociferously. You did too!, she snaps. No, I didn’t! Then the teacher pulls the trump card available to teachers in that time and place—she hits him. What’s interesting is how Teddy reacts. It makes him mad, and he never imagines that he was in the wrong. It certainly didn’t scare him to get into trouble—at least not when he was mad. This could be a sign that he would grow up to be a sociopath, or, maybe a prophet. Or maybe a little of both.

Now the story we have from Jesus’ youth is a little different. But we do see that when he was twelve already he showed a lack of fear about getting in trouble. To his parents’ chagrin and without their permission, he stays behind to visit with the teachers in the temple. Maybe one way to see this story is as part of his training in becoming a troublemaker.

Jesus as troublemaker

Several years ago, I came across the idea that, in trying to figure out what Jesus was about, we have one clear historical fact. He was killed as a troublemaker, executed by the Roman state as a rebel. So, whatever else we might want to say about Jesus, if we are to take his life seriously, we must account for that event. What did (and what does) it mean that in such a fundamental way, Jesus was a troublemaker?

Let’s note several biblical passages that seem to speak to the troublemaking theme in the broader biblical story.

The word of the Lord came to me saying, “I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “you shall go to all to whom I send you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you. Out of the north disaster shall break out. I will utter my judgments against my people, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have worshiped the works of their own hands. But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. They will fight against you; but I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” Jeremiah 1:4-8, 14-19

You, O Lord, are my refuge; you have redeemed me, faithful God. I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place. I am the scorn of my adversaries, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” Psalm 31

The high priest arrested the apostles. During the night an angel opened the prison doors and said, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” The next day, they were arrested again. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things.” Acts 5:17-32

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or an ancient prophet arisen.” He asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” Jesus sternly stated, “I must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the leaders of our people, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said, “If any of you want to be one of my followers, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:18-25

Continue reading “The Troublemaker [Jesus story #8]”

Jesus’s identity—and ours [Jesus story #7]

Ted Grimsrud—April 26, 2021

I stumbled across a quote from James Thurber, the American humorist who died about 50 years ago: “All people should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” That’s a good word about understanding Jesus’s identity—one who lived a life of running toward mercy, the path to what matters most. Then I found another quote, a profound thought from a great philosopher—Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In our story of Jesus, he comes to a fork in the road and takes it. And challenges us to do the same. Our question, as we read the story, is: What is this fork a choice between? Another way to ask the question: What about Jesus’s choice led to his death?

Why pay attention to Jesus?

I continue to ask the question, why do we pay attention to Jesus? Remember Albert Schweitzer’s image of modern-day people seeking to discover the historical Jesus. Modern historians peer down into the well of history and see a face and think they have found the actual face of Jesus—and don’t realize that the face they see is just their own. Schweitzer’s point is that historians, like everyone else, project themselves onto whatever image of Jesus they think they are recovering.

Now, I believe this kind of projection is not a fatal problem; we can’t help but see ourselves in Jesus. We wouldn’t pay attention to Jesus if we did not somehow think that he can help us understand ourselves, see ourselves better, become our best selves. Of course, we also wouldn’t pay attention to Jesus if we didn’t think there is in him something beyond ourselves, if we didn’t think that it is indeed possible to see something true, something of God, something that actually challenges us.

Continue reading “Jesus’s identity—and ours [Jesus story #7]”

What matters most? [Jesus story #6]

Ted Grimsrud—April 22, 2021

Back in the 1980s, when I was pastoring in Oregon, our neighbor asked me to perform a wedding ceremony for his sister who would be visiting from the East Coast. I really liked our neighbor, so I reluctantly agreed. I’ve never enjoyed weddings that much. (Kathleen and I made sure our own wedding was short and sweet—we took 17 minutes from the beginning of the processional to the end of the recessional.)

The wedding of our neighbor’s sister and her partner ended up being fine—good fun for the 15 of us on a beautiful spring day among the rhododendrons. It was an interesting experience. Our neighbors were not religious, nor was the wedding couple. But the mother of the bride was Jewish. She was skeptical about having a Christian minister do the service. She was so happy her daughter was finally getting married, though, that she was willing to accept the terms. I was told beforehand, though, that she was very worried I would talk too much about Jesus, even pray to Jesus.

Given the religious sensibilities of the couple, I used as my main text a song from Bruce Springsteen. That seemed to go over pretty well. Still, I was struck by the fear of the mother about having Jesus pushed on them. It was understandable. Over the past 1700 years, all too many people, especially Jews, have had a lot to fear from Jesus being “pushed on them”—often accompanied by a sword or other tool of coercion.

This problem, of Jesus being used as a basis for coercion must always be on the table for Christians when we try to understand what really matters in life and in our faith. Can we confess Jesus as the center of faith in a way that will not be scary to vulnerable people? Can we live life anchored in a message about Jesus that truly blesses all the families of the earth? What does matter most in our lives and in our faith?

Continue reading “What matters most? [Jesus story #6]”